on the cover of The Genius of Ray Charles.
“I said to myself, This is a good place to be in my life right at this moment,” Oates says.
Jones pointed to more strips of tape on the floor with names written on them in blue. He told everyone these were for the solos, which would be recorded later, after they laid down the chorus.
This was a little awkward. Anyone who didn’t see their name now understood that he or she had not been given a solo. One piece of tape said, daryl hall, with steve perry and michael jackson on either side. The name of John Oates, Hall’s other half, was not written on a piece of tape on the floor.
“I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed,” Oates says. “I was obviously not worthy. But at the same time it was cool. When Daryl and I perform together, Daryl’s the lead singer—he’s the guy. And he’s got an amazing voice, and of course he deserved it. Quincy and Lionel and Michael knew exactly what they were doing. You’re dealing with those three guys, you’re dealing with guys who really know how to make a record.”
Jones just kept talking, laying out the plan for the night. After the chorus, the risers would be dismantled and they’d do the solos. He turned and raised his hand to the control booth.
“Can I hear it, Hum?”
Humberto Gatica, the engineer, played the demo that Jackson, Richie, and Wonder had recorded—just those guys singing the chorus, plus every solo part. Some of the artists hadn’t listened to the tape Sternberg had sent, so they were hearing the tune for the first time. And a few of them weren’t that into it. Maybe more than a few.
“I don’t think anybody liked it,” Joel says. “There was a lot of, like, side-eye. There was a lot of looking at the other person, and I remember Cyndi Lauper saying, ‘It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.’ There was a couple of chuckles and a few grunts. That was pretty much the consensus, I think. But nobody was gonna say, ‘I’m not doing that.’ ”
ones that make a better day, so let’s start giving . . .”
But a lot of people seemed to be saying brighter
instead of better.
Someone asked, “Is it brighter or better?”
“Whichever one feels good,” Richie said. “Better or brighter? Brighter’s the one everybody’s leaning to, right?”
Everyone looked at their sheet music. Paul Simon, wearing a blazer over a checkered shirt buttoned to the neck, conferred with Tina Turner and Billy Joel. “Seems like they’re making a change,” he said. “I think it should be brighter, all the way,” Joel said. “Me too. It felt like everyone was singing brighter.”
Springsteen was looking at his music. “This is brighter?”
Huey Lewis leaned over his shoulder. “No—better, yeah, that’s gonna be brighter now.”
Springsteen: “Do I ever sing this?”
“No,” Lewis said. “It’s gonna be brighter. [Singing to Springsteen] ‘It’s true, we make a brighter day.’ ”
Wonder seemed to be the lone holdout. “Better
has more bite,” he said.
Jackson had an idea for another change. He proposed adding some African-sounding lyrics to the chorus:
We are the world . . . Sha-lum!
We are the children . . . Sha-lingay!
Jackson stood before his peers and sang it himself, a cappella. Jones kind of nodded. The ensemble tried it, with and without the instrumental track.
Then Wonder presented the idea of singing a few lines in Swahili. A few people later said they could feel the energy getting sucked out of the room.
Finally, Ray Charles, still holding a Styrofoam coffee cup, his headphones around his neck, jerked his head up and said to his old friend, loud enough for all to hear, “Ring the bell, Quincy. Ring the bell!”
The genius had spoken. The sha-lum and Swahili ideas were put to rest. (The episode was chronicled in great detail by journalist David Breskin for his excellent booklet We Are the World, published as a fundraiser soon after.)
They took breaks, but the recording dragged on. “There was a table piled up with cold cuts—sandwiches and stuff. Bruce and I kept wandering over to the deli table, hitting on a beer or a sandwich,” Joel says. “It wasn’t like church, you know?”
But it must be said: When the group sang together, hitting every note of the chorus Jackson and Richie had written, full volume, it felt like a new sound, something human ears had never experienced.
Henry Diltz was standing next to Jones, seeing it through his camera but hearing it with his whole body. “The heavenly choir,” he calls it.
He was invited, and although he never quite confirmed, he did perform at the American Music Awards, and it was Jones’s understanding that he was coming to the session. The great producer chose a solo line for Prince, right after Jackson’s line—a clever juxtaposition of two artists who were reputed to detest each other.
“There was a spot being held for him,” says Sternberg, master of the attendance list. “Sheila E. was trying to get him there.”
But Prince didn’t show. The next day, it was reported that he’d been hanging out at a restaurant, Carlos ’N Charlie’s, and that two of his bodyguards had been arrested after getting in a fight with some photographers.
“I think I got Prince’s line,” Huey Lewis says. After the chorus, Jones called Lewis over to where Jackson was standing and said, “Smelly, sing him the line.” And Jackson sang: “But if we just believe, there’s no way we can faaalll.” Lewis sang it back perfectly, Jackson laughed—a tiny, Jacksonian laugh—and Lewis smiled, raised his eyebrows, and said, “Can I go now?”
chorus and the solos. At one point, Springsteen sat alone on the risers, nursing a Budweiser. Jackson and his personal photographer, Sam Emerson, were sitting nearby. Springsteen got up and left the beer can. Emerson said to Michael, “Hey, Mike, let me take your picture with the beer can.”
Jackson said, “No, no, I can’t do that.”
Emerson said, “Come on! Who will ever see it?” They did the photo, Jackson sitting straightfaced, holding the Boss’s beer.
The next week, Emerson says, it showed up in the New York Post. Emerson’s agent called him and said, We’ve got big trouble. Emerson just about fell to the floor. Who had leaked it? His agent said he would investigate and call him back.
Turns out Jackson had had his publicist, Norman Winter, plant it. As a joke.
Later, Trbovich saw a chance to approach Dylan. Almost twenty years before this night, Trbovich was working for Johnny Cash in Nashville. One night, Cash invited him over for dinner at his house along the Cumberland River. Trbovich showed up to find Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Dylan, and a few others. After dinner, a guitar was passed around, and Nash played a new song he was working on, “Marrakesh Express.”
So Trbovich went up to Dylan before the solos got under way and said, “You don’t remember me . . . . ” He reminded Dylan about that night back in the late sixties. Dylan looked at him, nodded, and almost smiled. “That was a lovely night,” he said. “You were there?”
line of the song so he could get out of the way.
“I looked at the talent that was coming that night, and I wanted to get out of the way early, because when you start thinking Ray Charles is coming in that lineup, there’s Springsteen sitting over in the corner, and there’s every major power singer in the world coming down that pipe—you know what? I wanted to get out of that barrage as soon as possible,” he says. Still, he got the first line.
The soloists stood in a semicircle, each taking a line, with the next person coming in on harmony, then doing their own line, and so on. After Richie and Stevie Wonder opened the song, the next duo was Kenny Rogers and Paul Simon. Rogers was a big guy, six feet tall. The way he moved around was big, his hands were big, his beard was big.
Simon was five-foot-two.
Their voices, together, created perhaps the greatest unexpected alchemy on the recording: Simon’s avian, pitch-perfect smoothness cut with Rogers’s drawl, rising from somewhere down under the floor, was the aural manifestation of whatever genius lived inside the head of Quincy Jones.
The progression went left to right. Sometimes people messed up and Jones had them start over. This meant that Richie sang his line more than anyone, and the people way down on the right—Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Jackson, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and Kim Carnes—got the fewest takes.
Hall says that it didn’t matter: “I hate to say it, but I did my part, and that was the end of it. Some of these people had to stick around and overdub themselves a number of times, because they couldn’t pull it off. I wasn’t nervous at all. I opened my mouth and sang. Plenty of people were nervous, and that sort of separates the proverbial men from the boys. I’m just a person who can do things. I open my mouth and sing. I left early. A lot of these people had to stick around to get their stuff right.”
But some of the soloists took the multiple takes as opportunities to experiment with their line. After all, you got only one little line, and zero rehearsal time, and you were likely singing harmony with someone you not only had never performed with but had never even met. So the only time to play with the delivery was live, on take after take.
Dionne Warwick was ninth in the line of soloists. After the first chorus, she came in with “Send them your heart, so they know that someone cares.” The first few times through, she sang it dreamily, the Warwick of “Then Came You.” “Won’t you send them your heart . . .” But about the seventh time it was her turn to sing, she belted out the line like a burst of gunfire: “Welllll, send ’em your heart!”
The lyrics Joel was given to sing did not move him in the same way. Jones was handing out solos— “Quincy was culling the herd”—and Joel felt honored to be pulled aside. He studied his line on the sheet music. Tina Turner would sing, “We are all a part of God’s great big family.”
“Then me: ‘And the truth, ya know, love is all we need.’ I looked at those lyrics, and I went, That’s what I get? ‘The truth, ya know’? And it was kind of a low part, too. I think a lot of people were trying to be virtuosos when it came to their part. I know Cyndi did—Cyndi jumped into this whole other octave. Ya yay ah-ya! But she can do that. She’s a great singer. I think everybody wanted to put a little filigree on it, so they jumped out. I looked at my part, and I thought, Don’t even try. Just hit the mark and shut up. It wasn’t a time to show off, for me.”
Joel and Turner were chatting, looking at their parts, and Turner put her hand on Joel’s shoulder and told him she had a headache. He happened to have an aspirin in his pocket, which he offered to Turner. “She said, No, I don’t take that! I only use homeopathic,” Joel says. “I told her, I don’t know what that means, but I ain’t got any.” toward the anteroom. Hall had to take a leak and found Jackson in there, too.
“Michael was in the bathroom, and he asked me if I minded that he had ripped off ‘No Can Do’ and made it into ‘Billie Jean,’ ” Hall says. “Which, I don’t believe it was a ripoff. He says, I hope you don’t mind that I stole it. And I was like, What? You did a good job of stealing it, because I didn’t notice. I guess he was referring to the intro, kind of a pumping bass line, like my bass line. That was in the bathroom. There weren’t that many places to go.”
Joel saw Jackson wandering off frequently to “a remote part of the studio, with this makeup cosmetic kit. And he kept, like, putting his nose on. Because I think the tip of his nose was kind of falling off, and he kept dabbing at it with makeup or smearing it with something.”
Winter, Jackson’s publicist, a legendary guy who had worked with Elton John and Dylan, was on the soundstage, with all the other peripheral people. But Winter didn’t like being a peripheral person. He kept hounding Harriet Sternberg, asking to be let into the recording studio, saying Michael wanted him in there. And then he started going around loudly telling anyone who would listen that Jackson had written the whole song himself, and that Richie—her boss’s client—had nothing to do with it.
Sternberg alerted security that Winter was no longer welcome, and he was escorted out. “He was out of line,” Sternberg says. “That was the one person I kicked off the soundstage.” chronicled the session for Life magazine, was wearing his sport coat and looking for moments. Diltz was also hustling. Benson kept scowling at him, but Diltz kept shooting. There was also Emerson, whom Jackson had brought. “I’m sure Benson didn’t know what these other couple of dudes were doing there with their cameras, but he didn’t like it,” Diltz says.
By the time the solos got down to the end of the row, Kim Carnes—“When weeee stand together as oooooone!”—was worried whether she could even sing her part. She had a sinus infection—there was no way she was telling anyone that—and the part she was given, the end of the bridge leading back into the chorus, climaxed on a soaring note that would have been high in her vocal range even without a sinus infection. Plus, Lewis was harmonizing on the line, while Lauper backed them up with an aria of “yeah, yeah, yeah!”
Lauper, who was next to her, worked with Carnes on her line until Carnes could nail it even through her cold. “Cyndi was incredible. She knew. I said, Oh my gosh, this is high for me, and I’ve got such a cold. And she said, Let’s figure it out,” Carnes says.
Trbovich didn’t get many breaks throughout the night. He and his crew had to capture everything.
Nobody knew what time it was. Trbovich was filming away, and then through the blur of activity, Diana Ross—whose reputation was more diva than cuddly—walked over in her bare feet and said, “You haven’t eaten!” She was wearing one of the white cotton usa for africa sweatshirts that were
handed out at the beginning of the night but that only she, Kenny Rogers, Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, and Al Jarreau wore.
She tore her burger in half and gave half to Trbovich. “She said, Come here, come here. You haven’t eaten,” he says, one of his clearest memories of the night and one of the few he didn’t see through a lens. “I don’t wanna say she was—let’s just say she had been difficult other times I had worked with her,” he says. But this was a different kind of moment, a different Diana Ross.
Before he walked down to one of the CYO dances on Friday nights in Freehold, New Jersey, the awkward kid who played guitar would first smear some Clearasil on his acne. He didn’t have a lot of friends, unless you counted the hardscrabble dudes he played music with. The kid’s father, who worked at the Nescafé plant in town, would be sitting at the kitchen table, starting on a beer. They lived next door to a gas station. After the dance, the kid would usually come home and stay up late—for a sixteen-year-old—playing his Kent guitar, single pickup, sunburst design, up in his room, unplugged so he didn’t keep anybody awake. When his father got pissed off, you could see the darkness behind his eyes, and the darkness sometimes kept the boy up for hours.
It could be a lonely town, Freehold. That was like any town, of course. But Doug and Adele Springsteen’s only son didn’t just live in a lonely town; he lived in a lonely house.
When he wasn’t playing his guitar, he listened to records. (He had sold his little pool table to pay for the guitar, so that was out.) And in late 1965, he was usually listening to one of the two albums that had been released that year by Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home.
“How does it feel to be on your own?”
Bruce knew how it felt. And when he heard those songs, over and over, he knew Dylan knew how it felt, to need to get out of some place. Dylan, this kid Bruce would write in his life story more than fifty years later, “is the father of my country.”
Jones was talking to Dylan. The producer was reassuring him that he could do his solo. The unusual nasal sound of Dylan’s voice was what made him Dylan, but in that room of recognizable voices, he appeared nervous and unsure. Even as Jones talked him through his solo, encouraging him, James Ingram, the supersmooth soul voice who was presently wearing a really cool tracksuit, strolled behind them. Warwick, whose vocal cords were made of honey, sat on the risers nearby. Dylan crinkled his eyes at Jones.
“Did somebody else sing it already, on the track?” “Huh?”
“So I can hear it?”
Trbovich was filming all of this. And yeah, he says, Dylan was nervous. “But can I tell you something? I swear: Most. People. Do. Get nervous in front of a camera. I don’t care who they are. I remember, the first Academy Awards I did, I was a stage manager. And I remember Katharine Hepburn digging her nails into my hand before she walked out there to this live audience.”
“Tell you what, Bob,” Jones said. “Stevie!” He and Dylan met Wonder over at a piano, and Wonder played the chords of the song. All three of them tried to sing like Dylan, in unison. Even Wonder was doing his best Dylan impression, right there, to Dylan, to show Dylan how to sing this part like Dylan.
“There’s a choice wehr makin’, wehr see-vin ah own lives. Iss choo we make a brightah dee, jes yooo and meee.”
Dylan was rocking back and forth by now, singing along with himself. Starting to feel it. Behind this little work session, the other players milled around. Ingram, Jarreau, Joel, Springsteen, Richie. But when it came time for Dylan to record his part, Jones gave a little nod, and the room pretty much cleared. Only Wonder remained, at the piano, as a kind of comfort. And Trbovich, camera ever on his shoulder.
Dylan stood, black leather jacket zipped up, one thumb hooked in a belt loop, holding the sheet music up to his face, and sang it three or four times.
“Is that sorta it? Sorta like that?” Dylan asked, barely looking up.
Jones walked out and embraced him, and for the first time that night Dylan’s face spread into a smile.
He took a deep breath and walked back over to where the risers were. Springsteen stepped forward.
Headphones on, Springsteen moved his hips in a workingman’s dance, hearing the track as he waited to come in with his part. Jones later said Springsteen was “one of the hardest-working cats I’ve ever met before in my life. I kept waiting for him to get tired and sit down and rest. He kept saying, ‘Want me to do it again?’ ”
He sang the words as if a child were dying in his arms right then and there, his sandpaper rasp trailing into something like grief at the end of each line. When he’d finished, he opened his eyes and shuffled away from the mic. His peers broke into applause, especially Diana Ross, sitting cross-legged on the piano bench behind him. Springsteen, a ham, flapped his hands, as if telling the crowd, “More! More!” Then, “Thank you, thank you!”
Jones said, “Well, that takes care of that.”
Simon said, laughing, to Jones, who had arranged the strings on his 1973 song “Something So Right.”
People began filing out, reuniting with what few of their family and friends remained. Carnes cracked the door open to catch a ride with a friend of hers who had been there all night. “I just remember being shocked that it was so light outside, that the sun was up,” she says.
Jackson, meanwhile, stood clear across the studio, against the back wall.
He asked Kragen if he could review the video footage before the first bits of it were edited and released to the press in the coming days as a one-minute clip. Sternberg turned to Jackson and said of course, and that she would send it to his home.
“What’s your address?” Sternberg asked. He looked at her for a second, then said, “I just know how to get there through the back streets.” interviewed about the death of his friend and collaborator Kenny Rogers (who was also managed by Kragen) when he mused briefly about re-creating “We Are the World” to raise money to fight COVID-19. “I must admit,” he said, “every once in a while, God has to do something to get us back on track.”
But he knew organizing something like that was unlikely. Certainly not in the sudden, haphazard, Sure, let’s-do-it, call-Quincy-and-Bruce way they’d done it in 1985. No, it’s a different world.
“We came in like little kids on their first day of kindergarten,” Richie says, “and we were all kind of looking at each other, but we didn’t quite—‘Oh my God, there’s that kid over there, and there’s that other kid over there.’ Everyone was kind of freaked out standing next to each other for a brief moment, and then all of a sudden we realized: It’s not about us! We’re actually using our voice and our celebrity to save some people, and it’s about us giving everything we have to save their lives. So I think the brilliance of that evening was, we started out as forty-five artists looking at each other and going, ‘Yeah, I’m famous, and you’re famous . . . . ’ We left as a family.”
Sternberg that night had one last concern: phone calls to the press. She had reporters lined up at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. From among the few people left in Studio A, she asked for volunteers. Richie could barely keep his eyes open. Ross declined.
Steve Perry, who had been the first one to arrive the night before, said, “Okay!” And he and Sternberg rode over to the offices of Kragen and Company in West Hollywood.
Kragen looked around at the empty studio. Cords snaked across the floor. Empty Budweisers and Styrofoam cups and crumpled papers littered tables. He adjusted his big glasses and put on his sport coat over his white usa for africa sweatshirt. He walked out into the chilly light. It felt almost strange to be outside again, after being in the studio for so many eventful hours. He unlocked the door of his Jaguar and the alarm system began blaring into the otherwise quiet air—and he had no idea how to turn it off.
He got in the car and tried everything—the key, the alarm button, nothing worked. And the engine wouldn’t start unless he left the door open. He lived just a few miles away, in the Holmby Hills neighborhood, way down Sunset. Screw it. He started the engine, put it in gear, and drove the whole way with his door open, the car’s lights flashing, and the alarm blaring.